How not to get cancer

Richard Babor is an upper gastrointestinal and bariatric surgeon at Counties Manukau District Health Board. In his clinic, the question of how not to get cancer, or ‘why did I get cancer’ comes up a lot. Nobody is to blame for getting cancer. But there are risks and behaviours that we can impact, he says.

“Probably around 40-50% of cancers are preventable by us changing our lifestyle, or the way that we eat, or how we exercise, or the environment that we live in.”

The biggest risk factor for cancer is age. “The older you are the more likely you are to get cancer.”

Then there are things like the relationship between the HPV virus and cervical cancer – cervical cancer could be eradicated by HPV vaccination – and the relationship between tobacco smoking and cancer – 19 of 20 lung cancers are caused by smoking.

And then there are less certain things, like diet.

“You can’t live a perfect life in terms of cancer prevention and expect not to get cancer. But what you can do is reduce your risk. One of the really nice things about all of the things that reduce the risk of cancer is that they are generally good for all the other aspects too – like your cardiovascular fitness, avoiding cardiovascular events, and avoiding the risk of dementia and neurogenerative diseases. It’s a very happy story if you think of how you can apply those things in your life.”

Currently, there is a lot of talk of a national cancer strategy, but there is very little talk about prevention, he says.

“Obesity is a massive problem. It’s already overwhelming the health system. So much of the resources are going to go to looking after people who weigh 150, 160, 170 kgs. And there doesn’t seem to be a coordinated approach to preventing obesity.”

“Sleep well. Eat vegetables. Do low-intensity exercise. Make some friends and form connections in your community.”